Despite fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Leicester in their next six matches, along with away trips to Crystal Palace and Wolves, there are reasons to be hopeful for those keeping faith with their Tottenham stars.
While the schedule is tough, Spurs only travel outside of London once before their Gameweek 13 trip to Anfield: heading to Austria for a Europa League tie against LASK next Thursday. And they also won’t be playing two midweek matches during this tricky sequence, as happened at the start of October.
Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics
Stats need context.
Spurs looked fairly poor in the opening half against Southampton until Son Heung-min (£9.5m) scored just before the break. But goals change matches, and the Saints capitulated in the second half. Then two weeks later at Old Trafford, a dysfunctional Manchester United were hit for six.
When explaining their predictions, FiveThirtyEight note that:
The value of a goal when a team is leading decreases linearly to the end of the game, when a real-life goal is worth half a goal in the eyes of our model.– FiveThirtyEight
In other words, those two matches probably had slightly inflated scorelines.
In between Spurs played a poor Newcastle side missing one of their main counter-attacking outlets in Allan Saint-Maximin (£5.3m). A negative approach allowed the hosts to rack up 23 shots including 15 inside the box and four big chances. Spurs scored once from an xG of nearly three.
Their next four opponents were both better and a little more resolute.
Against Burnley, Spurs scored once from an xG of 0.6, and while they managed an xG of 1.9 in their 1-0 win over West Brom, the goal came very late in the game. The match might have opened up a little more had Son not dallied when presented with a big chance after 12 minutes.
But those two narrow wins weren’t a sign that Spurs had suddenly decided to jettison their attacking style, just as the two big wins didn’t mean they were going to score five or six each week.
As I mentioned in a comment a couple of months back; “styles make fights”. How a match plays out depends on how the two teams approach it. Then during the game, the scoreline will often affect that approach; so you might see one team go more attacking if they need a goal and, as a result, potentially leave themselves more open at the back. This is nothing you don’t already know.
Also, the lack of pre-season hindered many teams and probably goes some way to explaining the huge amount of goals we saw early on.
But all this context is often forgotten when we start grouping stats – and for small sample sizes like four matches, context is important.
The most disappointing result so far was the 3-3 draw with West Ham, in which Spurs surrendered a three goal lead in the last few minutes of the match.
Tottenham began in clinical fashion; scoring three times inside the opening quarter of an hour. And they missed two good chances to really put the game to bed – Son’s close-range effort after 34 minutes was saved before Gareth Bale (£9.5m) shot wide in stoppage time after a jinking run into the box.
That match was rightly seen as a turning point, but it didn’t – as some publications claimed – cause a total change in behaviour. The take that Mourinho had suddenly done a complete volte-face and gone from being an “expansive” attacking coach to one that “grinds out wins” was an exaggeration at best. Here’s the actual quote that article was based on:
I said that we were speaking a lot about it [the draw with West Ham] and working a lot about that situation [losing three goals in the last five minutes]. I am not going to say we are not going to lose matches or lose points in the last minutes, it can happen to anyone.
We felt the pain against West Ham and since then strategically the team is behaving in a different way. The two clean sheets, at Burnley and this afternoon [West Brom], showed the lesson – a team in the last five minutes that was very solid, it looked like the pain made a positive effort and the team improved after that.– Jose Mourinho
The best example of game management was in the final five to ten minutes of the Brighton match, as Spurs kept the ball as far away from their goal as possible. It was professional and showed they had learnt their lesson.
A squad is a puzzle– Jose Mourinho
Piece by piece things have come together very well for Jose Mourinho.
The arrivals of Gareth Bale (£9.5m), Carlos Vinicius (£7.0m) and, in particular, Sergio Reguilón (£5.6m) have transformed the balance of the team and the options at Mourinho’s disposal. And last season’s club-record transfer Tanguy Ndombele (£5.9m), feels like a new signing having put aside his differences with the Portuguese Head Coach.
On the left flank, Reguilón is more attacking than Ben Davies (£4.7m), averaging more touches in the final third, more goals attempts, and creating more chances. While defensively the Spaniard wins more tackles and makes more recoveries and clearances.
|Sergio Reguilón||Ben Davies|
|Touches in Final Third||20.6||12.8|
Key stats per appearance since Mourinho took charge
Reguilón’s willingness to get forward has had the effect of releasing Son from the shackles of the left wing. Between Gameweeks 30+ to 34+ Neale observed that “Son had been peripheral on the flanks since the restart …. his xGI was a meagre 1.47”, but contrast his touch heatmap for that period to the period since Reguilón made his Premier League debut in Gameweek 4.
Between the two periods, Son improved his big chances per match from 0.2 to 1.2.
On the opposite flank it’s been an inauspicious start for Matt Doherty (£5.8m). Yet his Tottenham career nearly got off to the perfect start; in Gameweek 1 a trademark surge into the box ended with a shot at goal that was well saved by Jordan Pickford (£4.9m). That remains the Irishman’s only effort in six Premier League appearances.
Pre-season much of the talk was about whether Doherty could replicate the attacking threat shown at Wolves, and there are probably a few reasons why that hasn’t happened: a lack of rest following his extended final season at Molineux; a change in the balance of the team with Reguilón attacking down the left; and getting used to playing in a back four.
Speaking about the positional change Doherty commented:
Going into a back four it’s certainly tougher and it’s something I’m getting used to and improving with each game… I’m still able to get in at the back post and get forward but it’s just harder work because you’re coming from deeper and you’re not necessarily up the pitch all the time.
Defensively though it’s just a lot about your position. When you play as a wing-back for so long, you pick up a few bad habits. You probably don’t get in as tight to your centre-back as much as you should and it’s about your body position.– Matt Doherty
Serge Aurier’s (£5.2m) anticipated move away from the club failed to materialize, and the Ivory Coast full-back has put in some of his best performances in a Spurs shirt when called upon this season, especially against the Manchester clubs.
During the Amazon documentary viewers saw Mourinho tell Aurier, in no uncertain terms, that he had reservations about his marking:
I am afraid of you as a marker. Because you are capable of doing a sh*t penalty with VAR.– Jose Mourinho
Aurier’s response this season is testament to his character. Long term, Doherty should be the first choice right-back but Aurier has made that decision far from certain. Though as Fantasy managers, whoever starts, we’ll be hoping for better on the attacking front.
In the current system, with Moussa Sissoko (£4.8m) starting alongside the combative Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (£4.9m), there is cover should the full-backs push on – as can be seen in this sequence from the match against Manchester City, after Aurier joined in an attack:
Sissoko tackles Ferran Torres (£6.9m) while covering at right-back for Aurier.
(click on image to enlarge)
This means Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso (£6.9m) are currently vying for the one spot in the team, while pre-season favourite Dele Alli (£7.4m) has dropped way down the pecking order. It’s a remarkable turn of events; Mourinho was effervescent in his praise of Alli as recently as August:
I think when I arrived by November/December, I think he was really good and he created in us big expectations, and he is doing the same now [August]. And hopefully he matured, he knows what he has to do to be the great Dele Alli we all love.– Jose Mourinho
At half-time in their final friendly before the new campaign it was a familiar story with Ndombele withdrawn after failing to close down Watford’s Tom Dele-Bashiru inside the box. Dele Alli dropped into a deeper midfield role for the second half.
Not many would have predicted that nine Gameweeks later it would be the Frenchman receiving praise for his stellar performances. His skill on the ball has never been in doubt; his close control and ability to pass under pressure are exemplary. Witness the opening goal against Manchester City, when his sharp turn and pass played in Son.
Ndomdele receives a short pass from Højbjerg and turns sharply under pressure from two City players. Kane makes a movement towards the ball, taking both centre-backs with him, creating space for Son to run in behind. Cancelo is a little slow to react to the run from Son.
(click on image to enlarge)
Ndombele has improved the defensive aspect of his game, and his application has impressed Mourinho. Nonetheless, he sometimes finds himself in the wrong position to make a tackle, as he did when challenging Riyad Mahrez (£8.2m) in first half stoppage time:
Coming on with half an hour to go, Lo Celso made an immediate impact when he replaced Ndombele, scoring his first Premier League goal. The Argentine took advantage of the space vacated by Kyle Walker (£6.1m) with Kevin De Bruyne (£11.7m) less effective at covering the right-back position than Sissoko was for Spurs.
Lo Celso scores with De Bruyne unable to catch him. (click on image to enlarge)
Lo Celso is back to fitness after a series of niggling injuries dating back to early March. The 24-year-old impressed as a number 8 for Argentina during the recent international break supplying an assist in both World Cup qualifying matches.
A creative midfield trio of Ndombele, Lo Celso and Højbjerg is unlikely at the moment, certainly against Chelsea, but it offers Mourinho another option for breaking down stubborn deep-lying defences should he need it.
At the moment the midfield is organised to offer protection for the attacking full-backs, which in turn allows the wide players to take up more central positions.
Against West Brom it was the introduction of Vinicius that helped unlock an obdurate Baggies rearguard. Forming part of a front two, the Brazilian gave the three centre-backs an extra forward to think about, and helped create space for Harry Kane‘s (£11.0m) winner.
I believed that to bring Vinicus to fix the centre-backs and to give Harry a little bit more freedom could help us … in the last part of the game they were starting to drop and I felt that we needed a striker to change the dynamic and change the positions and to give them a new problem that until then they didn’t have.– Jose Mourinho
The joint top scorer in Portugal last season, Vinicius adds not only cover for Kane but gives Mourinho a tactical option he didn’t have last season.
Gareth Bale is gradually getting up-to-speed and the returning Welshman has already made an impact off the bench, scoring the winner against Brighton & Hove Albion.
It’s such a contrast to compare the Bale we saw towards the end of his time at Real Madrid to the one we see now. He’s gone from being an outcast, clowning around in the stands of the Bernabéu, to a happy team player.
About to come on against Manchester City, an injury to Toby Alderweireld (£5.4m) forced a change of plan. Bale’s reaction was to give his countryman Joe Rodon (£5.0m) an encouraging pat on the back before he replaced the stricken Belgian. An indication of the togetherness in the squad.
Leaders and Winners
Bale is also a leader and a winner. Captain of his country, he picked up four Champions League and two La Liga titles during his time in Spain. And, as I mentioned in August, Mourinho has been adding leaders and winners to his squad: Højbjerg and Joe Hart (£4.4m) joined the playing staff with Ledley King appointed as First Team Assistant.
New-signing Reguilón won the Europa League with Sevilla last season and Rodon captained Wales for the final half hour against Finland during the recent international break. The Welsh conceded just once over their six Nations League matches.
The New No 2 – João Sacramento
Wales was also where Tottenham’s ambitious Assistant Head Coach took his first steps towards a career in professional coaching. Aged 18 João Sacramento, a former youth player at Braga, left Portugal to take up a place at the University of South Wales (then the University of Glamorgan), completing a BSc in Sports Coaching followed by an MSc in Performance Coaching. In 2012 he became an assistant lecturer on the courses he had just completed.
It was as a student when he first made contact with Mourinho, sending him a piece of work he’d done on tactical periodisation. Mourinho replied and they have been in touch ever since.
Tactical periodisation is the idea and method of doing everything around the ball. As John Terry put it when describing his first training session under Mourinho:
You never see a pianist running around a piano, you see a pianist work on the piano… And from day 1 of pre-season we have the balls out, which was probably unheard of.– John Terry
From Wales, Sacramento joined Monaco as Manager of Opposition Analysis, working for Claudio Ranieri and later Leonardo Jardim.
Then in 2017 the Portuguese moved to Lille, where he was appointed First Team Assistant Coach. At the Ligue 1 club he gained experience under Marcelo Bielsa and Christophe Galtier, and even had a seven-game period as caretaker manager.
His attention to detail is frightening. He’ll sit and work tirelessly to find flaws in opposition systems, sometimes working 16 or 20 hours to find any opportunity he can to win.– Steve Savage, Head of Sport, the University of South Wales
When Mourinho took over at Spurs his long-time assistant Rui Faria was unavailable having taken up a full-time managerial post. So Mourinho turned to Sacramento:
We can say that by talking, by changing opinions, by changing ideas, we know each other for quite a long time and I knew that he was going to be an assistant with quality because he has great talent and with great motivation.– Mourinho on Sacramento
The new No 2 soon endeared himself to Spurs fans with his enthusiastic celebration following Jan Vertonghen’s winning goal against Wolves in 2019.
However, for the recent match against Manchester City, instead of lining up in his usual position alongside Mourinho in the dugout, Sacramento took a seat five rows back in the stands.
Presumably this was to give him a better overview of the pitch. Sitting at a desk, the 31-year-old was working away on a tablet, shouting instructions down to Ledley King and Mourinho on the bench.
Back in 2011, when he was undertaking a placement at Cardiff as a scout and academy coach, Sacramento started a blog. The blog, which has since been taken down, featured an analysis on Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Luckily enough a copy of the blog survives on the Internet Archive.
In it, Sacramento describes why Guardiola encouraged his centre-backs to bring the ball out of defence in order to create ‘three on two’ or ‘two on one’ imbalances in the midfield. He then goes on to explain some of the thinking behind this system as well as its weakness:
Coaches admit in books and lectures that the safest way to play out is through the full-backs (using the full-backs as reference players). From my point of view, the reason why Guardiola opts for this strategy of playing through the middle rather than the flanks, is due to the fact that most teams in the world currently use the moment that the full-backs have the ball as a trigger to press.
That is, when a full-back receives the ball, the opposing team is going to focus on pressuring the full-back because the wide areas of the pitch are considered easier to press, since the full-back with the ball is limited because he is close to the touchline.
However, taking into account this type of offensive initiation through the centre of the pitch adopted by Guardiola, it is important to note that it is a very difficult and risky system because it requires a lot of technical-tactical solidity on the part of the players, especially the centre-backs, because if possession is turned over there is no second man to compensate.– João Sacramento’s blog, translated from Portuguese
The system changed slightly at Bayern Munich with the full-backs, instead of marauding up the wing, tucking inside and becoming “inverted full-backs”.
Another tweak took place at City with one full-back, Kyle Walker, frequently forming a back three alongside the two centre-backs, and the other full-back, João Cancelo (£5.6m) or Oleksandr Zinchenko (£5.5m), tucking into midfield.
As you can see from the shot below, Cancelo was often alongside Rodri (£5.4m) at the base of midield.
From that position, the Portuguese full-back played a couple of excellent balls through to Ferran Torres (£6.9m) either side of half-time.
The tactics Spurs employed were very interesting as Sacramento had the chance to put his knowledge of Guardiola’s system to good use.
For instance Son, instead of lining-up on the left where he would have been up against the lightning-quick Kyle Walker, started on the right. A successful ploy as it contributed to the opening goal, Cancelo unable to keep pace with the South Korean.
Tottenham, it would appear, currently have an excellent blend within the club: an ambitious young coach who works tirelessly to find flaws in opposition systems; a squad full of winners, leaders, and different attacking options; and a successful manager who is ready to adapt his approach depending on his opponents.
And, yes, I’m aware how stupid this article will make me look if Spurs get hammered by Chelsea!